In the comments to a post on Republican obstructionism, my old colleague Will Roberts proposes the following historical counterfactual: if the American left had been willing to fight harder and dirtier, they could have prevented or arrested the war in Iraq.
He goes on to propose a variety of actions that might have achieved this goal:
A million people showed up in New York — and at least half that number in DC — to commiserate about our powerlessness. We had immense wealth at our disposal. We had fame and access to the media. We had access to positions of economic, infrastructural, and governmental power. And all you can think of is assassinations?
Would it have destroyed the legitimacy of the anti-war movement if ten thousand people had burned down their own houses in protest? If 500 people had shut down I-80 in Pennsylvania for a week? If a thousand people had invaded the White House? If a few Senators had shut down the Senate? If all those anti-war actors had used every single public appearance to speak out against the war? If anti-war folks had joined the military in large numbers in order to disrupt military bases from within?
I have no idea if any of these things would have “worked.” But I think we all felt powerless from the get go, and came to an a priori judgment that there was nothing we could do that wouldn’t a) be futile and b) make things worse by causing more harm to us/the economy/our legitimacy/whatever. But that’s precisely the thinking that I’m both tired of engaging in and convinced does nothing but guarantee political impotence.
Right now, I am tempted and troubled by defeatism: basically, given the structure of American government, the political culture after September 11, and the various incentives and pressures that operate on American politicians, nothing that citizens could have done would have prevented our disastrous, unjust, and illegal “pre-emptive” invasion in Iraq. Each of the actions Will outlines seem likely to have provoked and empowered the hawkish politicians, supplying them opportunities to discredit the anti-war left and gather more support for their policy goals and objectives. I suspect that each of these strategies would have failed. Just shooting from the hip:
- Arson is illegal, so the first twenty people who burnt down their houses would end up in jail, especially if they still had mortgages. (There’s a guy who demolished his house after it was foreclosed… same problem.)
- The 500 folks who shut down I-80 would be met by 150 SWAT and end up in jail while moderates distanced themselves from the movement.
- Post 9/11, I’m not sure how the left would have gotten 1000 people into the White House or what they’d hope to accomplish there…. It’s not like the war was actually being run from the West Wing, this is what the Pentagon is for. Plus, in the midst of their planning they’d be infiltrated by FBI/Homeland Security who would “discover” (or actually discover, given Will’s other recommendations) that the activists were planning violence and arrest them. This is basically what happened to the much less radical NYC Republican convention protesters.
- It’d have been interesting if a few Senators shut down the Senate the way that the Republicans have begun doing, but this isn’t citizen engagement and actual Senators have shown themselves to always be more committed to re-election or retirement than their constituents’ causes.
- Actors with “anti-American” opinions? A time-tested, bad strategy, which has always proven counter-productive.
- Join the military? Now your body belongs to the Army and they can separate the activists and pack them off to the front lines with hooah patriots.
This list is better than an abstract call for concrete action insofar as it’s not a performative contradiction, but I don’t think Will offers any suggestions that seems likely to have succeeded, that couldn’t have been co-opted, and that wouldn’t, for instance, have won the 2008 election for McCain/Palin or justified major crackdowns that would have made things worse before they got disastrous.
What’s more, leftist violence in general would be no more successful that the rightist violence of the radical fringe among the Tea Party protesters. This is basically why Kantian/Rawlsian public reason is so seductive: even if you have radical goals and are willing to consider extreme methods, political liberalism still presents itself as the best strategy for accomplishing anything worthwhile.
However, I don’t really want to believe that citizens are as powerless as this, though wanting doesn’t make it true. So I ask: what could we have done to prevent or end the war? Some of this depends on how we describe this “we”: President Bush could have prevented the war, for instance, by the simple expedient of not launching it. The Republicans could have prevented the war by refusing to support it. Saddam Hussein could have prevented the war by handing himself over to a war crimes tribunal. But given that those actors were set in their course, what could the antiwar left have done?
I’m not talking about what the American antiwar movement actually did: protesting ineffectually while our politicians played patriots, supported the war, and waited five years to elect Barack Obama in the hopes that he’ll manage to withdraw American troops? (I say “hope” because even now it’s not clear if the conflict over election results will lead to violence and a longer duration of “peacekeeping.” But this waiting until we get the presidency back and he’s finished mopping up his predecessor’s mess certainly can’t count as “prevention.”) What could we–no–what should we have done differently?